The return to Fight Island saw the continued dominance of the middleweight champion, the crowning of a new light heavyweight champion and the emergence of a new flyweight contender.
Israel Adesanya found a way to keep his title and undefeated record with a victory over the previously undefeated Paulo Costa. While Costa’s power was often discussed in the lead-up, the incessant kicking of Adesanya enabled him to hit his mark and emerge with the second-round win.
Jan Blachowicz silenced the doubters — and oddsmakers — with a brilliant performance over Dominick Reyes that ended with Reyes on the ground and his ribs turning a shade of purple. Blachowicz wasn’t the fighter many expected to hold the light heavyweight title in 2020, but the statement has been made and his reign atop the division begins now.
Brandon Royval also turned heads tonight in a highly entertaining battle with Kai Kara-France. The two flyweights held nothing back and Royval’s agility led him to a big win and a spot in the division’s top 10.
So where will the winners and losers go from here? Brett Okamoto looks at the potential matchups ahead after UFC 253.
Israel Adesanya (defeated Paulo Costa by second-round TKO)
Going into Saturday, Adesanya was already talking about fighting Cannonier next. The champ is very high on Cannonier’s skill set (as many of us are) and has predicted he will “destroy” Whittaker on Fight Island next month. If that does happen, promoting Cannonier into the No. 1 contender spot is a no-brainer. He has been a monster since moving down to middleweight in 2018. If Whittaker wins, it’s less of a no-brainer, as Adesanya just beat Whittaker for the title less than one year ago.
That fight would be less of a slam dunk from the promotional side, but the reality is that Whittaker shouldn’t be denied a title shot if he wins next month. He has lost once in the past six years. And I, personally, would be extremely interested in Adesanya vs. Whittaker II.
Despite the fact he’s coming off a loss, it doesn’t feel like Till is far away from a title shot. At all. He’s incredibly popular, and Adesanya has pretty much said it’s inevitable they will fight at some point. When that fight happens, it will be big, and there’s a possibility it could be next if Till wins decisively in December. Don’t forget how the UFC fast-tracked Till to his first title shot at welterweight in 2018.
Paulo Costa, middleweight
Well, you know what they say. Someone’s “0” had to go on Saturday, and in the end it was Costa‘s. There’s not too much to be upset about here, though. Costa is only 29 and figures to have plenty of elite years left in him. And when you look at his résumé, he actually hasn’t fought a lot of his fellow middleweights near the top of the division: Whittaker, Cannonier, Darren Till, Jack Hermansson, Derek Brunson, Kelvin Gastelum. I am interested in every single one of those.
And although he lost to Adesanya on Saturday, there was obviously plenty of heat on that matchup going in, and I doubt the UFC would avoid making it again if Costa wins a few fights and Adesanya is still champ. In terms of the immediate future, pairing Costa with the loser of this fight next month makes the most sense.
Wild card: Kelvin Gastelum
Stylistically, this is one of the top matchups for Costa. The only problem is Gastelum wants to fight sooner rather than later, from my understanding. But if the UFC sinks its teeth into this fight because it’s the one the promotion wants, I could see it being next for Costa.
Jan Blachowicz (defeated Dominick Reyes by second-round TKO)
I don’t think anyone would have predicted Blachowicz would finish 2020 as the UFC’s light heavyweight champion, but here we are. The perennial underdog has done it again. Now, we’ll see how long he’s able to hold on to the belt — and if oddsmakers continue to set lines against him even as the champ!
Santos and Teixeira are pretty clearly next in line at light heavyweight. Santos actually holds a win over Blachowicz from February 2019. I believe this division is going to be one of the most interesting in the UFC in 2021. There’s a lot of uncertainty here. But one certainty, in my opinion, is that the Santos-Teixeira winner should be next up.
Wild card: Anthony Johnson
“Rumble” Johnson is planning a comeback in 2021, and there’s a lot of excitement around it. I asked UFC president Dana White if Johnson’s first fight back could be a title shot and he responded, “No” … but I’m not totally convinced he wouldn’t change his mind.
Johnson is a name, and one of the most feared punchers in the history of this division. I don’t think this is likely, but you can’t tell me the UFC would completely rule it out.
Dominick Reyes (lost to Jan Blachowicz by second-round TKO)
Part of me wanted to just say Oezdemir no matter what. That’s a very fun stylistic matchup between two former title challengers in the top 10. But Krylov deserves to have his name included here as well. Even though Reyes is coming off a loss, he’s still highly ranked and a win over him means something.
That’s what the winner of Oezdemir vs. Krylov will be looking for post-Oct. 17. A fight that really means something. An opponent who, if you beat him, can elevate you to a possible title shot.
Either of these two would be a fun fight for Reyes. Depending on how Nov. 7 goes, I can’t imagine the loser wanting to take much time off. Santos is coming off a long layoff due to knee surgery, and time is not on Teixeira’s side at age 40. I could see a relatively quick turnaround on a fight like this, especially as all of these guys scramble to take advantage of the suddenly wide-open landscape of a Jon Jones-less light heavyweight division.
Brandon Royval (defeated Kai Kara-France by second-round submission)
Who should be next: Alexandre Pantoja
Man. What a performance by Brandon Royval — are you kidding me? Late in the first round, it was almost like he wanted Kai Kara-France to hit him. He was walking right through Kara-France’s offense, looking for blood.
I didn’t see this coming from Royval. Not that I thought he couldn’t win the fight, but he spent all week talking about how happy he was to be there and how he wanted to take a picture with Israel Adesanya. Then he went out and fought like he knows he belongs in the UFC. And not only in the UFC, but at the very top of his division. I’d love to see him fight Brandon Moreno someday. That’d be a tremendous fight. Moreno is booked though, so let’s go with another ranked, fun stylistic matchup. Pantoja is coming off a loss to Askar Askarov, but stylistically, I’d love to see him fight Royval.
Wild card: Askar Askarov.
It’s quite possible the UFC will disagree with me and pair Royval with Askarov. Which, if I’m being honest, probably does make more sense, as he’s coming off the win over Pantoja. Stylistically, I prefer the other one. But this matchup is a good one for the rankings and the winner would be right there in terms of a title shot.
Ketlen Vieira (defeated Sijara Eubanks by unanimous decision)
Vieira looked pretty good at times, uninspiring at others. On one hand, her striking was crisp early on and her takedowns were effective against Eubanks. It was good to see her look the part of a top-10 bantamweight after going through long layoffs in 2019 and 2020. On the other hand, she didn’t look like a title challenger. No one is licking their chops to see Vieira vs. Amanda Nunes after this.
She is deserving, however, of a highly ranked opponent. De Randamie is in a tough spot, as she just lost to Nunes in her most recent bout. She’s kind of a title-shot gatekeeper at the moment, and she’d be a heck of a test for Vieira. And if Pena wins that fight, she’s back on the map in a big way but not ready for a title shot quite yet. I think the UFC could book Pena vs. Vieira and promote it as Nunes’ next 135-pound title challenger.
Wild card: Raquel Pennington
For the same reasons as above. Vieira needs someone with a number next to her name. Pennington fits that criteria. I think there’d be more of an upside for Vieira to face the winner of De Randamie vs. Pena, but depending on how that fight goes and how the division is shaking out, this one would make sense too.